September 29, 2017

The Gulf Arab Countries and the Kurdish Referendum

Masoud Barzani
Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani speaks to reporters during a press conference in Erbil, Iraq, Sept. 24. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) authorities in Iraq have reported a predictably huge “yes” vote, over 90 percent, in the nonbinding referendum on Kurdish independence that was held September 25. The KRG’s immediate neighbors – Iraq, Turkey, and Iran (all of which have substantial Kurdish populations) – reacted with anger, and the United States expressed strong disapproval, while Israel praised the vote and endorsed Kurdish statehood. But most of the Gulf Arab countries have had a more ambivalent response, reflecting their own diverse interests in the Kurdistan region and what the vote, and potential Kurdish independence, could auger, both positively and negatively, from their perspectives.

Broadly speaking, several Gulf Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, see an opening in the Kurdistan region to expand the pro-Arab Sunni Muslim bloc in the Middle East, enhance the position of Sunni Arabs in other parts of Iraq, frustrate Iran on a number of fronts, and create additional leverage with Turkey. Their primary concerns include the potential outbreak of conflict, the uncontrolled potential disintegration of Iraq, a crisis in the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or the Kurdish issue somehow playing into the hands of Iran and its clients in Iraq and beyond.

This ambivalence was reflected in the reaction in Gulf Arab countries in the run up to the referendum. There was strong support in the Saudi and Emirati traditional and social media for the vote, but both governments formally expressed concerns about Iraq’s territorial integrity and the need for stability. Bahrain also advised Kurdish leaders not to rush into an independence vote that might destabilize Iraq. Kuwait was even more forthright in emphasizing that its primary interest was in the continued national unity and independence of Iraq. Oman did not take a public position. Qatar took the strongest Gulf Arab position in opposition to the Kurdish vote, expressing “deep concern” that the referendum could “pose a threat to the unity of Iraq and the security and stability of the region.”

Gulf States’ Relations with the KRG

Diplomatic relations between Gulf Arab countries and the KRG are limited, as the Gulf Arab states have had to balance between building relations with the Kurds and maintaining their relations with, and interests in, the broader Iraqi state. The UAE has the most extensive diplomatic and political ties with the Kurdish capital of Erbil having established a consulate general there as early as 2012. That was followed by Kuwait in 2015, and then Saudi Arabia in 2016, an upgrade in relations that was conducted despite Iran’s objections. KRG President Masoud Barzani visited a number of Gulf countries in 2015, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The KRG granted Emirati, Qatari, and Kuwaiti citizens the right of nonvisa entry in 2014. Oman, Bahrain, and Qatar do not have high-level representation with the KRG.

Several of the Gulf countries have extensive investments in the Kurdistan region, particularly the UAE and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia. As early as 2014, Iraq had risen to seventh place among the UAE’s trading partners, with most Emirati investment in Iraq concentrated in the Kurdistan region and with 130 Emirati companies registered as doing business there. Kuwait also has substantial and early investments in the Kurdistan region, although most of its presence in Iraq tends to be in the south. But the diplomatic and political concerns of Gulf countries in northern Iraq now far outweigh any commercial interests, no matter how substantial.

Kuwait’s interests in the Kurdistan region are, perhaps, the most straightforward. As with Kuwait’s attitude toward the rest of Iraq, its relations with Erbil are viewed primarily through the lens of the 1990 Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait, and the determination to avoid any repetition of such a scenario. Therefore, Kuwait has long seen an interest in maintaining good relations with Iraqi leaders, particularly insofar as they represent some national, regional, confessional, or ethnic constituencies, and above all in the south of the country near the Kuwaiti border. The potential violent total disintegration of Iraq poses the same threat of chaos to Kuwait as it does to all of its neighbors. However, Kuwait’s interest in promoting a more fragmented and less unified Iraq in which regional authorities have considerable power – thereby reducing the potential for the resurrection of an overwhelmingly mighty, integrated, and potentially predatory neighbor to the north – certainly predates that of its fellow Gulf Arab countries.

The KRG’s Regional Strategic Role

More recently, however, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also begun to see strategic and political benefits to some rise for the Kurds – potentially to the extent of independent statehood, but certainly including maximal autonomy in a federal Iraq. Iraqi national unity and territorial integrity, at least in their most formal and nominal senses, are still important values for these countries. The final, formal breakup of Iraq through the establishment of an independent Kurdish state, unless it were amicably negotiated between Erbil and Baghdad, would probably not be a peaceful affair and could initiate a long, bloody, and highly destabilizing conflict that would not serve the interests of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Moreover, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are fundamentally status quo powers in the Middle East, at least in general, and are unlikely to welcome much redrawing of the established political map.

However, the strengthening of the KRG specifically, and the Kurdish position in Iraq in general, has become a powerful strategic interest for Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The KRG is now viewed as an important new addition to a struggling Sunni Muslim bloc in the Middle East, even if its relations with Turkey and some other potentially important members of that camp are particularly strained under the circumstances. The notion that an empowered KRG is a significant obstacle to Iranian interests has become irresistible. At a minimum, the KRG would be politically equidistant from Tehran and Riyadh, and at the very least slightly tilted toward the latter. At a maximum, Gulf Arab countries could develop a strategic relationship with Erbil in which the KRG emerges as a fully-fledged member or adjunct of the group of Middle Eastern actors actively opposing Iran.

This is particularly important because the Kurdistan region could be a substantial barrier to the development and maintenance of a “land bridge” from Iran, through Iraq and into Syria and Lebanon, linking Tehran with both its clients in those countries and the strategically crucial Mediterranean Sea. Such a land bridge, if consolidated under the complete control of Iran and its proxies, would alter dramatically the Middle Eastern strategic equation. Given the success of the pro-Iranian and pro-President Bashar al-Assad forces in Syria, particularly after the fall of Aleppo, preventing the consolidation of such a land bridge is one of the chief goals of Iran’s adversaries in the Middle East.

The KRG’s Political and Strategic Role in Iraq

This goal will be further advanced if Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and others can help foster better relations between Erbil and the Sunni Arab leadership in western Iraq (much of whose territory would include the only other route from Iran to Syria). Strong relations have been brewing for several years as Iraqi Sunni Arab political leaders who have had to flee from Shia militias, the government, or ISIL have largely sought refuge in Erbil. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has been strengthening its relations not only with the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad, but with Iraqi Sunni political and tribal leaders in western Iraq. The disposition of these forces, particularly in the post-ISIL period, combined with the orientation of Erbil, will do much to determine the power balance inside Iraq.

Qatar, Iran, and Turkey

A year ago, Qatar might have shared many of these perspectives. However, given the confrontation between Doha and the quartet of countries opposing Qatar’s policies, the Qatari position is much more sensitive to the concerns of Iran, which is quietly supporting Doha, and, especially, Turkey, which is Qatar’s main regional ally – hence Qatar’s unusually strong warnings against the Kurdish referendum. However, Turkey is not shocked by the referendum. It has been living with the “Kurdish question” since the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. Iraqi Arabs are also angered, but they too are not shocked, having watched the groundwork for Kurdish independence in the region built since the establishment of the no-fly zones in Iraq in 1991 and, especially, the fallout of the U.S. invasion in 2003.

Iran, however, is both alarmed and shocked, not only by the strategic implications of Kurdish power in northern Iraq, but also by the sudden eruption of unprecedented displays of Kurdish nationalism inside Iran (which has a much smaller Kurdish population than Turkey, but a larger one than Iraq). Up to now, the main ethnic concerns inside Iran have focused on the Baluchi and Arab minorities. However, increasingly the Kurds of Iran appear to be restive and highly dissatisfied. This nationalistic Kurdish sentiment inside Iran is obviously linked to independence moves in the KRG, and that, too, contributes to sympathy in parts of the Gulf Arab states for the referendum and the Kurdish independence movement more generally.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s Goals

The ideal scenario regarding the KRG in the long run, from the point of view of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, would be the emergence via negotiations of a hyperempowered and de facto independent Kurdish entity in the context of a formal but loosely confederated Iraq. This would allow the Kurds to play their regional and Iraqi roles with maximum effectiveness, but without risking the violence of a secession struggle. It would allow the Kurds to serve as a balancing power against Iran in the region, including in Iraq. It should, at least in theory, strengthen the hand of Sunni Arabs inside Iraq, and therefore, regionally. And it would greatly reduce the prospects for the consolidation of Iran’s land bridge to Lebanon and the Mediterranean.

Moreover, the model of a loosely united federal system in Iraq would allow Sunni Arabs to control their own areas, creating another brake on Iran’s influence in Iraq. Furthermore, from a Saudi and Emirati perspective the loose federation model serves as a potential workable and minimally acceptable solution for the long-term future in Syria. In fact, it is likely they will now use their influence to promote the development of federal systems in both countries.

However, Arab opposition to full and formal Kurdish independence is not, by any means, absolute. Should the project of thwarting Iran’s influence by strengthening Sunni Arabs and Kurds in Iraq, developing stronger ties to the Abadi government and other wings of the Iraqi Shia political spectrum, and eventually promoting a loose confederation in Iraq fail in the long run, the equation would dramatically change. If Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Arab states must ever choose between full and formal Kurdish independence in northern Iraq and the consolidation of an Iranian-controlled, more integrated Iraqi state, the former would undoubtedly win out, despite the inevitable qualms about the breakup of a major Arab country.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.